Yuvraj Singh targeting New Zealand T20s
Yuvraj Singh, having battled a rare germ-cell cancer called mediastinal seminoma for the last six months, is seeking fitness and redemption, and believes T20 will be an ideal format for him to explore his return to competitive cricket.
The World Twenty20 has been marked down by many as the event that will signal his comeback, but on Friday, Yuvraj said he ideally wanted to be completely ready in time for two T20 internationals against New Zealand scheduled for Visakhapatnam on September 8 and Chennai on September 11.
"It's important for me to play a little bit of cricket before I play the T20 World Cup. I should be ready enough to play in those two games. I want to be ready 15-20 days in advance so I can push really hard in the T20 World Cup."
He said he thought he had a "95 to 100%" chance of making it back in time for the World Twenty20 and the bigger event happened to be a "realistic" target. "I'm not going to come back 90% fit or 80% fit. If I feel I am 100% fit then I am going to go into the field… I am recovering really well, getting a lot of strength, my cardio sessions have been good. [If I] keep doing those repetitions, I think my body will recover faster."
The post-cancer routines, he said, had not varied greatly. "There's nothing different to it, it's just that I have to build on everything altogether. So T20 would be a great start for me because you're playing 20 overs. Then you play 50 overs. Once you have that feel of international cricket, you'll be fine to play all other formats." It is why he believed setting out for T20 would be an "ideal start" for him in international cricket.
Yuvraj was speaking at his academy, the Yuvraj Singh Centre of Excellence, at the Pathways School near Gurgaon, Delhi, on Friday, the day before the launch of a cancer initiative called YouWeCan. It was here that he made his first public appearance after returning from chemotherapy in the US in April. The man in the room this week was significantly altered from the bald, slightly hesitant and almost unrecognisable figure who wore sunglasses indoors to deal with the glare of camera lights.
The two months between then and now, Yuvraj said, had been spent recovering from his chemotherapy, taking a vacation with friends, and most recently his first nets session in six months. While he did make a brief appearance during the IPL in Pune, the return to nets at the NCA in Bangalore has given him energy, direction and optimism, he said.
The transformation from being in a wheelchair during his final cycle of chemotherapy in Indianapolis and three months later walking into the NCA nets or sprinting, up to what he called 90% of capacity, was, he said, an experience hard to "explain in words". Yuvraj called the NCA nets "stepping stones for me to come back". He said he had been anxious when he went into the nets for the first time. "It was special for me, but I was a bit nervous, my feet weren't moving great, but just moving, just being in the nets, was just a great feeling."
According to his own assessment, Yuvraj thought of himself as about halfway ready then, admitting his recovery was "more of a mental battle". For the better part, though, muscle memory had kicked in when he faced net bowling for the first time in six months. "As a cricketer your natural instincts are still the same. I was hitting the ball perfectly, I was catching the ball perfectly, I was bowling perfectly. It didn't look like I've been out of sorts. It just looked like I need more time to spend on the field in the nets. It didn't look like my bat is coming from somewhere else. Yes, my feet weren't moving that great. I was struggling to go towards the ball, but my hand-eye coordination was the same."
At the moment, he is trying to spend a total of five to six hours - though not at a stretch - on conditioning work. One of the first shocks for his body to recover from was an initial reaction to the leather ball after three to four months spent in bed, struggling to walk or breathe like normal. "Yes, I was a bit scared of the leather ball. When I was watching the IPL - guys catching, somebody hitting the ball - I would get scared. My body was under a lot of shock, just getting over that shock is coming slowly."
Instincts and muscle memory can kick in quickly for any athlete, Yuvraj said, but anxiety would only go away over a period of time, "The leather ball hitting you… that feeling has to go away, because eventually you have to go to international cricket and play at the pace of 145-150kph, so you want to be as confident as ever when you go back. You have to get that routine in, you have to spend hours and hours. You have to spend extra time on your body."
He said that the cancer treatment had "completely broken" his body and dealing with the load of an exercise regime for the first two weeks and the muscular pain was hard. "My body hurts a lot, but after two weeks I've seen the results, it's started to get better. A lot of strength has been gained. My body has not gone through a ligament tear or a hamstring pull. It will take its own time to come back."
Yuvraj was, he said, positive that the next two months would find him in far better physical condition. He said he felt comfortable batting, bowling, fielding and sprinting in short bursts. "If I can do five rounds [of a cricket ground] at a stretch, that means I am fit. At the moment I am not able to do do that. Cardio-vascularly my lung capacity has gone down after chemotherapy."
Yuvraj spent more than two months in Indianapolis, being treated at the IU Simon Cancer Center, where dealing with the after-effects of chemotherapy meant getting used to the loss of hair and appetite and "bad mood swings". He learnt to inject himself with a blood-thinner every day for three months in order to deal with the post-chemo blood clots, and to accept the effects of his treatment as necessary elements of a painful route to a recovery.
"You can't keep the food inside, and it is the same for everyone who has chemotherapy. You smell the food but you can't taste it… in four-five days your taste comes back. These are normal symptoms. It is important for people to understand that it is you who has to take the initiative for getting better."
The YouWeCan initiative was, he said, targeted at all kinds of cancers. "If we can work on detection and stigma, the percentage of people dying of cancer can come down. It can make a huge difference."
Cancer, he said, had made him a more grounded, organised and disciplined person. "I am trying to be more disciplined in my eating, in my sleeping times, in who I want to meet and who I don't want to meet.
"Am I more organised? My room is still dirty. I still throw my clothes." He said he had begun to pray every day, "which earlier I used to struggle with".
The disease, he said, had made him appreciate the small things. He laughed about grabbing a bite to eat before talking to reporters, "I love every meal now. I just ate a samosa. I had struggled to breathe, so breathing fresh air is a great thing for me."
Yuvraj said he did not think of himself as someone who was going to give up on the demands of cricket. "I'm not a person who is going to say bas [enough]. I'm just going to live a normal life and I want to get back on the field, because I want to see how much my body can take. This phase has made me very strong and I am sure this strength will take me back on the field."
Yet, Yuvraj believed, the "motive" in his life had changed. "I am not going to be worried too much about my performances. I am just going to be happy that I am coming back on the field and play for India again.
"Yes, I have to excel in Test cricket - if it happens, it happens, if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. One-day cricket or T20, I would just love to come back and play for India and I would just be happy, trust me. It's a huge thing from where I was and where I am going to be."
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo